LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research

Outcomes of an After-School Soccer Program for At-Risk Youth
(July 2010)
Nancy Hritz, Ph.D.,
University of North Carolina Wilmington

Danny E. Johnson, Ph.D., LRT/CTRS, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Candace Ashton-Shaeffer, Ph.D., LRT/CTRS, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Kirk W. Brown, Ph.D., University of North Carolina Wilmington



Please direct correspondence to:

Nancy Hritz, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

University of North Carolina Wilmington

Department of Health and Applied Human Sciences

601 S. College Road

Wilmington, NC 28403-5956

(910) 962-7719


Children’s use of time after-school is a public concern, particularly for elementary school youth considered “at-risk (Halpern, 2003). In the United States, after-school programs are viewed as a solution for poor academic performance. Lauer, et. al., (2004) found low academically performing at-risk children improved their reading and math scores after participating in an after school program. In addition, after school programs that focus specifically on recreational sports have the potential to positively enhance self esteem for adolescents (Peterson & Seidman, 2004; Todd & Kent, 2003). This study examined the academic and social outcomes of an after school recreation program for at risk elementary school children. Pre and post participation data revealed significant academic improvement in math and reading scores and improved social skills. Teachers also reported positive improvement in behaviors such as time-management, acceptance of criticism, and cooperation. Students responded favorably stating they felt better about school and making friends.


Key Words: at-risk, after school programs, self-esteem


Children and youth in the United States are confronting complex social, economic and cultural environments. It is within their own communities that problems facing young people are most visible. Regardless of race, social, or economic status, youth are bombarded on a daily basis with images of violence on television, in newspapers, the internet, in schools, and sometimes at home. Compounding this, some youth have to deal with cultural, economic, racial, and social issues that make it difficult for them to experience success during their formative years. In some families, both parents work outside the home leaving youth with no supervision for the immediate after school hours.

All of these factors can contribute to a young person’s sense of isolation, despondency, and social adjustment. When young people feel they have nothing to do and nowhere to go, they are vulnerable to gang involvement, truancy, and alcohol and other drug use. In the 1990s, the problems created by youth engaging in these self and socially destructive behaviors began to receive increased attention (Witt & Crompton, 2002). A number of organizations, including park and recreation departments and public schools, have reacted by providing a number of youth development programs aimed to provide a higher quality of life for youth.

Recreational experiences can be used as a key component for improving the social good and for youth development (Russell, 2002). To make this happen, however, recreation providers, must go beyond the “gym and swim” mentality and provide programming that allows for the development of relationship skills youth can transfer not only into academic life, but into their personal lives as well (McLaughlin, 2000). Thus, the programs to address the needs of youth must reach beyond the immediate need of a place to “hang out” or “keep the youth out of trouble” (Witt & Crompton, 2002). They must offer opportunities to develop skills, build relationships, increase success in school, and participate fully in community life (McLaughlin, 2000). The aim of this paper was to investigate how an after school recreation program may enhance the self-esteem, social skills and academic success of at- risk children.

Review of Literature

Children’s use of time after-school has been an on-going public concern, particularly with low income children in elementary grades (Halpern, 2003). Such children, considered “at-risk” can be exposed to many hazardous situations, such as violent crime, abuse and drugs (Baker & Witt, 2000).  Programs targeting this population are geared at helping them navigate adolescence in a healthy manner, develop productive social skills, and emphasize the building of community (National Recreation Foundation, 2006; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003).

After school programs have a rich history of over one hundred years in the United States (U.S.). Most of the early programs were for lower income, urban children who were more often provided a safe place to stay rather than a structured program (Halpern, 2002). Research has shown that after school recreational activities such as sports, outdoor activities, and mentoring programs can have a positive impact on the self-concept of youth considered at risk (Green, Kleiber, & Tarrant, 2000; Marsh & Kleitman, 2003; McKay, 1993). For example, Scott, Witt, and Foss (1996) found participants in an art based after school program benefited from interaction with positive role models, had a greater sense of belonging and acceptance, and had an improved ability to get along with others.

Many theories and models have been utilized in the research on investigating the behaviors of at risk youth. Self-esteem theories center on the conscious reflection of one’s own being or identity (Huitt, 2004). Self-esteem can be cognitive in nature, defined as a dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions a person believes to be true about their existence (Purkey, 1988). It can also be viewed as affective or emotional and refer to one values. Huitt (2004) states that one’s world views and their relationship to it provide the boundaries and circumstances within which individuals develop a vision of the future. This is a major issue facing youth today.

Self-concept theory also focuses on an individual’s idea of themselves. The relationship between the two is explained by Franken (1994) who states that those with good self-esteem have a clearly defined self-concept. “When people know themselves they can maximize outcome because they know what they can and cannot do” (p. 439). Therefore, many authors use the terms self-concept and self-esteem interchangeably (Huitt, 2004).

Clear associations have been established between self-esteem and academic success (Marsh, 1992). School achievement has been shown to lead to enhanced self-esteem. Gage and Berliner (1992) found a relationship between self-esteem and success in the specific school subjects of reading, mathematics, and science.

Past research has explored the interaction between recreation programs and self-esteem. Outdoor education programs were found to increase self-esteem for at risk youth and their families as a collective whole (Green, Kleiber, & Tarrant, 2000; Wells, Widmer, & McCoy, 2004). Pedersen and Seidman (2004) found adolescent girls who had higher levels of achievement while participating in a team sport also reported higher levels of self-esteem. Similar results were presented by Todd and Kent (2003). They found that participation in a recreational athletic program led to greater self-concept for the participants, most notably for females.

After school programs that focus specifically on sport have the potential to positively affect at- risk youth. Participation in a team sport was shown to be connected to enhanced self esteem for adolescents (Pederson & Seidman, 2004; Todd & Kent, 2003). However, Colthart (1996) notes that students who are considered at-risk participate in significantly fewer recreation and sporting activities than other students. More specifically, youth of African American and Hispanic ethnicity have been found to participate in youth programs less frequently than those of other ethnicities (Bouffard, Wimer, Caronongan, Little, Dearing, & Simpkins, 2006). Moreover, youth of a lower socioeconomic status may not have access to a recreation facility, or their parents may be worried about their safety while traveling to and from the organizations in their neighborhoods, and the families may not be able to afford the program’s fees (Grossman, Walker, Raley, 2001). On the other hand, schools are readily available to all persons, and thus the hours between 3 and 6 PM are ideal time for the facilities to be open and offer youth positive recreation experiences.

Today, schools tend to view after school programs as not only providing youth with a safe place to go and facilitating self esteem through recreation activities, but also as a remedy for other social concerns such as poor academic performance and anti-social behaviors (Grossman et al., 2001). School officials have an incentive to boost academic performance for youth. This may be due to the residual effects felt by the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, otherwise known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Under this federal law, schools with students who test poorly on standardized tests in reading and math are subject to censure from the state and may lose some of their autonomy (Wallis & Steptoe, 2007). On the other hand, schools with high performing students can receive an increase in resources, including bonuses for teachers.

Utilizing after school programs to specifically boost student’s grades has been met with some success. Lauer, Akiba, Wilkerson, Apthorp, Snow, and Martin-Glenn (2004) found that low academically performing children considered to be at-risk performed better in reading and math scores after participating in an after school program. In addition, Posner and Vandell (1999) found that time spent in a coached sport after school was associated with an overall improved grade point average in 5th graders. Likewise, Baker and Witt (1996) found significant differences in student grades from the beginning and to the end of the year between participants and non participants in an after school program. They also found the teachers to reported that the program had a positive effect on the child’s behavior. Mahoney, Lord, and Carryl (2005) also found that those students participating in an after school program increased their reading skills compared to those who did not participate in the program.

The mere existence of youth programs by local schools and park and recreation departments offers much promise for making a difference in the lives of many youth (McLaughlin, 2000). Moreover, a variety of programs offered and participated in by youth are the most optimal for youth development (Theokas, Lerner, Phelps, & Lerner, 2006). However, because youth participate in a variety of programs, ascertaining the effectiveness of any one program is a challenge (Theokas, et al., 2006). This lack of proof of effectiveness can be problematic for acquiring or maintaining financial support for youth development programs (Witt & Crompton, 2002).

This study builds upon the current cache of knowledge by continuing to assess the outcomes of participation in a recreational after school program on academic performance and self-esteem. It also attempts to examine any effects such a program has on improving social skills that can be transferred to the classroom. Lobo and Olson (2000) contend that “recreation programming can benefit from the shared use of public school facilities, and can include after school programs designed to support the learning activities of the school curriculum as well as to provide recreational experiences for at-risk children” (p. 15). Further, Danish, Forneris, and Wallace (2005) assert that children who are involved in a recreation program such as a sports program learn cooperation, teamwork, goal setting, time management and communication skills that can be transferred to other areas in their lives.

The purpose of the study was to examine the outcomes of an after school soccer program for at- risk children. Specifically, the following research questions were asked: (a) Are there any differences between teacher perceptions of students’ social and study skills and behaviors before and after the program? (b) Are there differences in reading and math scores at the beginning and end of program with participants? (c) What are student perceptions of their self-esteem after participating in an after school recreation program?



Third and fourth graders identified as at-risk based on their school district’s definition (low social economic status and low academic performance) were identified by their teachers and recruited to participate in an after school soccer program. The program was the joint effort of a public elementary school and the Recreation Therapy/Recreation Management department at a university in the southeastern part of the U.S. during the 2004-2005 academic year. A total of 31 students participated in the program with the consent of their parent or legal guardian. The students began practice with their team shortly after the winter holiday break and competed in games throughout the spring with teams in the local community soccer league. Transportation and uniforms were provided, and shoes were available at a discounted cost.

In order to specify the benefits of an after school recreation program, it is necessary to design and structure the program at the beginning around measureable outcomes (Witt & Crompton, 2002). The theoretical building blocks for the after school soccer program was nested in the National Research Council’s features for positive developmental settings for youth (Eccles & Appleton, 2001). These features reflect many of the common themes reflected in the literature: (a) physical and emotional safety for participants before, during, and after the program, (b) appropriate structure with clear and consistently enforced rules and expectations, (c) caring and supportive relationships (d) opportunities for meaningful inclusion with a group, (e) positive social norms that are reflected in the culture and delivery of the program, (f) support for self efficacy,  self empowerment, and expression, (g) opportunities for skill building, and (h) integration of family, school, and community efforts. Desired outcomes were improved self-efficacy, prosocial behavioral skills, increased academic improvement in math and reading scores, and improved classroom behavioral skills.

To meet the above criteria, participation in games was mandated by attendance at all the after-school practices and completion of assigned daily homework, as well as being current with school work. Soccer was chosen as the recreation activity because of the simplicity of equipment and the availability of weekend games in an existing community sports program.

A teacher and an active parent at the school served as soccer coaches. Practices took place on the school’s playground and were held once or twice per week depending on coaches’ schedules. Each session would begin with a review of each student’s schoolwork and if a student had work to complete they had to finish before getting on the practice field. Playing on the school sponsored soccer team was considered a reward for effort in school.


To measure the above outcomes, multiple data sources were used. Teachers rated the students using several measures both before and after the program. The first were questions from the Walker-McConnell Scale of Social Competence and School Adjustment (SSCSA) short version. The SSCSA identifies prosocial behaviors specifically in the classroom setting (Worthington & Harrison, 1990). Nineteen questions from the SSCSA addressed teacher preferred behavior such as the ability to work independently without teacher support and careful listening to teacher instructions; and additional questions regarding interactions with peers while in school setting such as the ability to compromise with peers when needed and the ability to accepts constructive criticism from their peers. Each question was measured using a five point Likert type scale with 1 = “never” and 5 = “frequently.”

The SSCSA has been examined for its reliability and validity. Reliability of the scales was established with test-retest correlations of .88 to .92, inter rater consistency with a .53 correlation among teacher and an internal consistency alpha coefficients ranging from .95 to .97. Validity was substantiated with significant correlations for discriminant, criterion and construct validity (Merrell, Merz, Johnson, & Ring Yakima, 1992).

In addition, teachers rated the students with questions from the Social Skills Rating System (Gresham & Elliot, 1990). The Social Skills Rating System (SSRS) is considered an ideal complement to the SSCSA (Worthington & Harrison, 1990). While the SSCSA is more of a global assessment of social adjustment for children in the classroom, the SSRS “provides measures of both developmental and situational aspects of social competence” (Worthington & Harrison, 1990, p. 252). While the SSCSA asked teacher’s to rate external problem behaviors, these questions address behaviors that may not be as easily noticed (Elliott, Gresham, Freeman, & McCloskey, 1988). Thus, the SSRS provided more detailed information regarding youth development. Questions used from the SSRS were items from the problem behaviors domain. These five questions addressed peer relations, loneliness, impulsive behaviors, and anxiety. They were measured using a three point Likert type scale with 1 = “never” and 3 = “often.”

The SSRS has been examined for reliability with an internal consistency of .82 and test-retest of .84 for the problem behaviors domain (Elliot, et. al., 1988). The scale has also shown high construct validity with structural confirmatory factor loadings ranging from .70 to .86 (Fantuzzo, Holliday Manz, & McDermott, 1998).

Teachers also rated the participants on their cognitive function with questions on concentration levels, effort levels, and eagerness to learn. These questions were borrowed from the Teacher Observation of Child Adaptation-Revised Scale (TOCA-R) cognitive concentration domain. The TOCA-R is an appropriate measure for ascertaining at risk youth academic development and is a good measure for ascertaining classroom behavior skills (Petras, Chilcoat, Leaf, Ialong, & Kellam, 2004; Werthamer-Larsson & Kellam, 1991).

The cognitive concentration domain of the TOCA-R has high internal consistency with a coefficient alpha of .97. Moreover, the domain has good concurrent and predictive validity (Werthamer-Larsson & Kellam, 1991).

In addition, student’s reading and math scores on the school’s End of Grade (EOG) standardized test were collected in the fall before the program began and once again in the spring at the conclusion of the school year and consequently the program. The EOG exams determine if a student successfully completes the grade and is ready to move to the next grade. The scores are also reported to the state as a measure of the school’s performance. In 2004, the mean scores for students in third grade were 253.4 for mathematics and 248.1 for reading. The mean scores for students in the fourth grade were 259.2 for mathematics and 252.3 for reading (Public Schools of North Carolina, 2005).

Lastly, students rated themselves of their feelings at the conclusion of the program. These were included as a self-reported measure of effects of the program. These evaluation questions were written by the researchers with input from a school counselor familiar with the students. Each question began with the statement “since starting soccer…” and was presented on a five point Likert type scale with 1 = “a lot worse” to 5 = “a lot better” for each item.

Data analysis

Means and standard deviations were computed for each question on the instrument for each data collection period, both pre and post participation in the program. Therefore, pre and post mean differences were examined for each section of the survey: the SSCSA, SSRS, TOCA-R, End of Grade tests, and student self-report. Paired samples t-tests were used to examine any differences among the participants for each item both before and after the program. Paired sample t-tests are an effective way to access if the observed mean differences are significant from zero (Keppel & Wickens, 2004).


Complete data were collected on 25 of the 31 students who participated in the program. Descriptively, seventeen (68%) participants were male with eight females. The ethnicity of the participants were mostly African American (42.9%), with 33.3% Hispanic, 14.3% white, and 9.5% bi- or multi-racial. All the students were in either the third (36%) or fourth (64%) grade and ranged in age from 8-10.

To answer the first research question, a paired samples t-test was computed for each SSCSA statement. Out of the 19 individual SSCSA statements measuring student prosocial behaviors relating to self esteem, 15 statements showed a significant difference from the pre-test at the p < .05 level. Table 1 depicts the results of all the paired t-tests, means and standard deviations.


Table 1 Teacher rated prosocial skills














Other children seek child out to involve

    him/her in activities







Child uses free time appropriately







Child shares laughter with peers







Child has good work habits (e.g., is

    organized, makes efficient use of class








Child compromises with peers when a

    situation calls for it







Child responds to teasing or name calling

    by ignoring, changing the subject, or

    some other constructive means







Child accepts constructive criticism from

    peers without becoming angry







Child plays or talks with peers for extended

    periods of time







Child initiates conversation with peers in

    formal situations







Child listens carefully to teacher

   instructions and directions for








Child displays independent study skills

   (e.g., can work adequately with minimum

   teacher support)







Child appropriately copes without

    aggression from others (e.g., tries to

    avoid a fight, walks away, seeks   

    assistance, defends self)







Child interacts with a number of different








Child can accept not getting his/her own








Child attends to assigned tasks







Child keeps conversations with peers going







Child invites peers to play or share








Child does seat work assignments as








Child produces work of acceptable quality

   given his/her skill







Based on the scale: 1 = Never; 2 = Rarely, 3 = Sometimes, 4 = Often, 5 = Frequently

a = Significant at p < .01; b = Significant at p < .05


Paired samples t-tests were also used for each SSRS statement on self esteem. Only one of the SSRS statements was significant from the pre-test. The statement of “gets easily distracted” tested significant, t(20) = 2.646, p = .016. Results of the SSRS t-tests and descriptives can be found in table 2.

Table 2 Teacher rated social competence skills















Fights with others







Argues with others







Appears lonely







Acts sad or depressed







Gets easily distracted







Acts impulsively







Based on the scale: 1 = Never, 2 = Sometimes, 3 = Often

a = Significant at p < .05

Questions addressing classroom behaviors from the TOCA-R also were significantly different before and after the program using a paired samples t-test at either p <.05 or p <.01 level. The means, standard deviations, t-scores can be found in table 3.

Table 3 Teacher rated cognitive function of classroom behaviors















Self reliant







Works hard







Learns up to ability







Easily distracted














Completes assignments







Shows poor effort







Eager to learn







Mind wanders







Works well alone







*Based on the scale 1 = Never, 2= Rarely, 3 = Sometimes, 4 = Often, 5 = Very often, 6 = Always

a = Significant at p < .01; b = Significant at p < .05


For the second research question, scores on the EOG Tests in reading and math were also significantly different between the participants at the beginning and end of the after school soccer program. At the beginning of the program, students scored below the state mean in both reading and mathematics. At the conclusion of the after school soccer program, students scored similar to the majority of students in their grade in both subjects. A paired samples t-test was significant for both reading and math pre and post testing. Reading scores improved t(18) = -6.566, p < .001 as well as math scores t(19) = -8.850, p < .001 at the conclusion of the program for the participants. Table 4 shows the means, standard deviations, and t-test scores for the End of Grade Testing.

Table 4 End of Grade Reading and Math Scores





























a = Significant at p < .01


Lastly, in regard to the third research question, students rated themselves on self-esteem issues at the conclusion of the program to answer the third research question. Descriptive statistics revealed a mean score of “a little better” for all the items. The highest ranked item was “feeling a member of a team” with a mean score of 4.56. The other two items with the highest value were “feeling better about myself” M = 4.44, and “feel an important part of school” M = 4.44. These results are further illustrated in table 5.


Table 5 Student perceptions after participation of self esteem

Since starting soccer…



How I feel about myself



How I feel about my schoolwork



How I feel about being an important part of school



How I feel about making better decisions



How I feel about being a member of a team



How I feel about fitting in with others



How I feel about making friends















Based on the scale: 1 = a lot worse, 2 = a little worse, 3 = same, 4 = a little better, 5 = a lot better




On a broad scale, the students involved in the after school soccer recreation program improved in several areas of social competence related to the classroom. Of the significant statements with the SSCSA, there was almost an even split of improvement in both teacher preferred behaviors, with seven areas of significant change, and peer relations with eight significant areas of improvement. Combined with the improvement in ability to stay focused in the classroom by not being easily distracted, as revealed in the SSRS measure, participants in the program improved significantly in both areas equally.

The students’ classroom behaviors also had a notable change with each area showing significant improvement from the start of the program. The results also show that participants, now armed with their improved classroom behaviors, can score higher in math and reading aptitude. As a result, their self esteem can improve and with reports of feeling better about themselves and school.

The results indicate that participation in an after school program can lead to improvements in academic performance, social skills, classroom behavior and self esteem. Both students and teachers reported perceived improvement in social and decision making skills. Teachers reported positive improvement in behaviors such as time-management, acceptance of criticism, and cooperation. Students responded favorably stating they felt better about themselves and felt an important part of the school community.

The combination of being on an after school team with the practice structure with an emphasis on academic efforts may have a synergistic effect on students. Higher academic expectations and learning to become a team mate is a scenario that moved students from a predicted failure to a documented success.


Ultimately, as demonstrated by this study, participation in after school recreational activities has the potential lead to higher end of grade scores and positive academic related social behaviors, which can lead to a more beneficial learning environment for all. The connection between involvement in an after school recreation program and improved academic performance can perhaps aid those schools who are vulnerable under the NCLB act. An after school recreation program is a low cost method of reaching those students who are struggling with reading and math scores as stipulated by the law. Moreover, participation in these types of programs can have a positive impact on the self-concept of at-risk youth which can further aid them in excelling in the classroom.

There are several limitations to this study. First the small sample size limits the ability to generalize the results, however, it points to some promising results in this area. In the sampling process, teachers were asked to identify students to participate in the program, and they may have only selected those who they believed would show improvement. In addition, improvement was also rated by teachers and supported by student perceptions. In future research it might be best to include other perceptions such as the parents who may offer a richer perspective into the outcomes of the after school program.



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